Just as Kleenex and Jacuzzi are commonly used to describe any tissue or hot tub, brownstone is a specific term that’s been stretched far beyond its narrow meaning. Today, brownstone is a word often used interchangeably with townhouse and row house.
But what is a brownstone, really?
To find out, we talked to experts like Martin Eiden, a New York-based real estate agent with 22 years of experience, chatted with a historic preservationist, and got our hands dirty with a Brooklyn couple who blog about brownstone renovation.
We also took a stroll through the history of U.S brownstones, taking a virtual stop at a Portland, Connecticut, quarry and reading some strong sentiments on the topic from the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Edith Wharton.
Ready for a walk down a delightful brownstone block? This guide will give you all the information you need to know about brownstones.
The basics of brownstone
Let’s begin with the fundamentals. Brownstone, the material, is a soft sandstone, also known as freestone for its ability to be cut in any direction.
Skilled stone workers carved ornate designs into brownstone, producing “fancy-looking” facades, according to Simeon Bankoff, executive director of New York’s Historic Districts Council.
“Brownstone is a very adaptable material. You can use it in a number of different styles,” Bankoff says. “And as long as you are not opposed to having a brown building, it’s really quite attractive.”
In fact, it is the stone’s chocolate brown color that partly inspired its rise in popularity. It’s the presence of hematite iron ore that weathers the stone to a rich brown.
Before the 1800s, brownstone was considered less desirable — and therefore was much cheaper — than more expensive materials, like granite, marble or limestone, used to “front” brick rowhouses.
But that changed with the arrival of Romanticism, an artistic and intellectual movement that idealized nature. Brownstone evoked a natural look, and that’s what people wanted.
In the 19th century, brownstone became immensely popular as a building material, especially in New York City. In fact, in an 1880 federal building census tally, a whopping 78% of New York stone buildings used brownstone in their construction.
Most brownstone was mined in the northeastern U.S., and mining improvements during the Industrial Revolution made brownstone even more affordable, with steam-powered machinery replacing human labor.
By the mid-1800s, brownstone had become incredibly desirable as a building material, and today it still represents urban sophistication and neighborhood appeal.
The quarries where brownstone was born
Before making its way to upscale city streets, brownstone began its journey in wide open pits, called quarries. Let’s drop by a few.
If you’re standing in front of a New York City brownstone, odds are good that you’re looking at stone from a Portland quarry. Located along the Connecticut River, this stone had an easy barge commute to New York.
Brownstone quarrying began in Portland in the 1700s. Rows of houses, churches, and monuments were built using the Connecticut brownstone, not just in New York, but in places like Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Apostle Island, Wisconsin
Many stone buildings in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, Minnesota use brownstone obtained from the Apostle Island quarries, located east of Duluth, Minnesota, in Lake Superior. The stone’s location on Lake Superior made for easy and inexpensive transport of large building blocks.
Another popular source of brownstone was Hummelstown, near Pennsylvania’s capital. Brownstone was cut here beginning in the 1700s and used in several prominent buildings along the East Coast, including the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., the North American Building in Philadelphia, and the National Exchange Bank in Baltimore.
Beneath New Jersians’ feet lie the Stockton and Passiac formations. For 200 years, New Jersey harvested these formations’ brownstone. Brownstone from the Stockton formation was used for Princeton University’s Nassau Hall, while Passaic brownstone adorns the Old First Presbyterian Church in Newark.
The terms “townhouse,” “row house,” and “brownstone” may be used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Townhouses and row houses are narrow buildings built in a row and attached to other townhouses or buildings on one or both sides. A brownstone is a townhouse or row house made of brick and — this is the crucial part — fronted with a brownstone facade.
In New York City, brownstones can most frequently be found in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Brownstones are unique, says Eiden, who completes 36% more sales than the average New York agent.
“A lot of these brownstones, because they were originally built as ornate homes for the merchant class, there’s a lot of original detail and character,” he says.
Examples of that character include carved fireplaces and tall ceilings, some up to 14 feet tall. Brownstones are also spacious, with four to five stories and 4,000 to 6,000 square feet of living space. Many brownstones have a stoop that leads from the sidewalk up to what is called the parlor floor, which contains the living room and dining room.
The floor below is the garden level, which is where the kitchen might be located, and beneath that is the basement. Two or three floors of bedrooms sit above the parlor floor.
Today, many brownstones have been divided into several units, giving more tenants a shot at brownstone living. But some of these multi-unit buildings are now being reclaimed.
“The trend in the last 10, 15 years [is] people are now buying these houses and restoring them back to grand single-family homes,” Eiden says.
People like the Brownstone Boys, for instance. Jordan Slocum and Barry Bordelon purchased a 130-year old Brooklyn brownstone in late 2018 and maintain a blog about their restoration, a process that has included restoring their double-door entrance and uncovering the original woodwork.
So many brownstone owners contacted them, asking for renovation advice, that Slocum and Bordelon decided to quit their jobs in January 2020 and dive into the brownstone renovation business full time.
The enduring appeal of the brownstone
When the Portland Brownstone Quarries closed down in 2012, the New York Times published a farewell to the storied stone.
“Brownstones occupy a unique place in the New York City psyche, as one of the city’s most prototypical signposts, like yellow cabs and fast walkers, yet are able to stir aching desire and teeth-baring jealousy,” the Times wrote. “Everybody wants one.”
Practical reasons drove its popularity in the 1800s. Fire was a major concern, and brownstone was less flammable. Cost was another, and brownstone was inexpensive.
Today, supply drives the demand. No one’s building new brownstones, and those that remain are more than 100 years old.
But mostly, the brownstone house has long been considered fashionable. Brownstone buildings have a look of grandeur, an aesthetic that is underlined by the fact that they are often found in high-end neighborhoods.
“Because brownstone blocks and street fronts were developed in rows, you have a very interesting and engaging streetscape, where you have similar elements that work together in a rhythm,” Bankoff says.
Slocum and Bordelon, the Brownstone Boys, initially bonded in part over their shared brownstone love. It was seeing featured brownstones, first on “Sesame Street” and later on “Sex and the City,” that compelled Slocum to move to New York City, then save every penny to be able to own one.
“I always wanted to be a part of that,” Slocum says.
In the interest of objectivity, we should point out that not everyone swoons at the sight of a brownstone. Edith Wharton, an American novelist who wrote frequently about New York’s upper class, believed brownstone left her city “hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness.”
Maintaining a brownstone
For nearly as long as people have been lusting after brownstones, others have been bemoaning the stone’s tendency to decay. Given how porous it is, and its layered composition, the stone is especially susceptible to climate and pollution.
In some cases, the way the stone was installed causes the problems. Often, brownstone was face-bedded, meaning the stone layers were set perpendicular to the ground, allowing water to enter and weaken it.
The passage of time has only exacerbated the challenges of maintaining brownstone. Damaged surfaces can be repaired through patching. Regular maintenance can help with upkeep, especially taking these steps to minimize water damage:
- Keep gutters clear.
- Inspect the roof regularly and quickly repair leaks.
- Remove ivy.
- Apply caulk to open joints to keep water away from windows, doors, and other horizontal structures.
- Inspect metal flashings to ensure they aren’t absorbing moisture.
- Repoint loose, broken, or missing mortar joints.
Before buying a brownstone, Bankoff, the historic preservationist, recommends having it assessed by a building engineer. An engineer can assess whether the building has water penetration issues.
Deciding if a brownstone is for you
So what is a brownstone, really? For those who live in them, and those who wish to, it’s much more than a building made out of a certain type of stone.
“It’s kind of, more, an idea,” says Bordelon.
The idea is this: a tree-lined street, rows of pleasant-looking houses and stoops where you can sit outside, enjoy the day, and say hello to neighbors passing by.
“It has a connotation around a community,” Bordelon says.
By now, perhaps you are imagining sitting on your own stoop. If you are interested in finding a brownstone in New York, Boston, or beyond, get in touch today and connect with a top HomeLight agent.
Header Image Source: (Brian Goodman / Shutterstock)